NEMA sits blocks away from a homeless encampment at Civic Center Plaza that has bedeviled city boosters for years. It's a giant open expanse where people gather on squares of perfectly-manicured grass, arranging their possessions on large plastic tarps or stuffing them in garbage bags. Some particularly enterprising folks hawk packages of room deodorizer or laundry detergent, or boxes of cookies. The fountain there is a pile of stone guarded by police barricades and caution tape. On a recent Friday night, in true San Francisco fashion, a homeless man strode through the area wearing an "I Love NPR" T-shirt.

While most of the crime in that area falls in the "quality of life" category — public urination, littering, unpermitted vendors blocking the sidewalk — it's historically been enough to stymie development, according to Jim Sangiacomo, head of Trinity Properties, who says he was only too happy to see "young techie" pedestrians infiltrate Mission and Market streets in recent years. And the homeless population downtown seemed only to swell — or at least become more visible — with the 2010 closure of the Transbay Terminal, which left much of the city's underclass without an enclosed place to sleep.

The problem, according to Sangiacomo, is that two parallel universes collide at Market Street — that of the well-heeled and that of the indigent — and yet those two worlds are interdependent. San Francisco's prospective main street is surrounded on all sides by social service agencies, which, property owners say, bring more needy people to the area. "You have them on the south and on the north," Sangiacomo says. "You have Glide Memorial and St. Anthony's dining room in the Tenderloin. They get their checks from the General Services Administration on Mission and Eighth streets. It's this circular area of people going back and forth all the time."

Carey Perloff in what used to be a porn theater lobby in the Strand Theatre.
Evan DuCharme
Carey Perloff in what used to be a porn theater lobby in the Strand Theatre.
Nancy Nielsen fears for the future of Mid-Market social service agencies.
Evan DuCharme
Nancy Nielsen fears for the future of Mid-Market social service agencies.

Yet the agencies also help reduce San Francisco's homeless population: between 2009 and 2011, the number of homeless people on the street and in shelters decreased by more than 500, according to the city's homeless count. Without social services, the open squares by Civic Center and Powell Street might become so overrun that tourists, pedestrians, and theater-goers would never set foot there. Now, with commercial rents rising and luxury condos becoming the new normal, many nonprofits say they are in danger of becoming homeless themselves.

San Francisco has long striven to help its less fortunate, and its municipal policies often reflected that do-gooder ethos. Back in the '60s and '70s, when the closest things to Google were call-in switchboards or Yellow Page phonebooks, San Francisco administrators made a concerted effort to build their nonprofit infrastructure. In large part, they accomplished that by contracting with nonprofits for most social services, says Mark Burns, deputy director of the city's In-Home Supportive Services Consortium.

"If you go back historically," Burns says, "the city took out all the contracts with for-profit companies, and replaced them with nonprofits." He adds that the latest push for commercial development is anathema to San Francisco's former vision of itself. "The new policies coming out of City Hall... are done on the backs of citizens who the city purports to welcome and be inclusive of."

Meaning commercial development has grown so rapacious in San Francisco that some social service agencies can no longer afford to operate here. Some are already migrating to Oakland, according to Burns. Which raises the question of whether the indigent and low-income people who use those organizations — the people with no assets, whatsoever — will get priced out, too. If anything, fewer available services beget more homeless people, says Nancy Nielsen, deputy director of Lutheran Social Services of Northern California. And that could create serious problems for the developers trying to resuscitate Mid-Market.

Such culture clashes are less troubling than the prohibitive rise in commercial rents, or the cost of living there in general. If places like NEMA become the new norm, then the whole funky infrastructure that San Francisco built 40 years ago may be doomed. Now, many nonprofits and arts organizations — including the ones that help bejewel the city's "arts district" image — depend on the generosity of landlords who aren't necessarily looking to become philanthropists.

Veterans of the nonprofit sector see eerie parallels to the dot-com boom of the '90s, when rapid property appreciation drove the first wave of have-nots to Oakland. Not only are landlords eager to fill ground-floor spaces that languished during the recession, they're also able to command much higher prices. And because most direct social services don't have the luxury of moving out of town — "you may as well move out of state," Jeff Bialik, executive director of Catholic Charities, says — they're often stuck sparring with a much more desirable class of tenants.

"We'd been renting a space in SOMA for 8 years, and during that time our landlord found a tech client who offered double what we were paying," Nielsen says, explaining why her group now has its sights on a large, dilapidated eyesore of a building that needs about $400,000 in rehab. "The landlord is willing to keep rent at an affordable rate, and pay up to a quarter of the build-out cost," she adds. "But he isn't going to pay $400,000, and we don't have that money just sitting around."

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7 comments
stacheone
stacheone

@Chetley You are incorrect. All of the nonprofit CBDs including the Mid Market CBD are making the land use decisions driven by the for profit company that created them.  The street cleaning and power washing is not necessary we have 311, the other stuff is chump change to what the CBD collects  from assessed property owners.  Why is the Mid Market "getting better?" It's because of the luxury condo and chain stores kicking out the little guys. www.stacheone.com

subcommandanteuno
subcommandanteuno

How do you know the man wearing the NPR T-shirt was "homeless?"

What about the Grant Building at the corner of 7th and Market? The owners drove out dozens of artists, non-profits, and small businesses to create a fantasy hostel for his son. It has been a boarded-up eyesore for several years now, not generating any revenue. Maybe he should be arrested and charged with fraud?

Anyways, this was a pretty half-hearted attempt at investigative journalism. The real story of the greed and corruption in City politics will require a little more effort. 

stacheone
stacheone

You failed to investigate or acknowledge the Mid Market Community Benefit District (CBD) who is making the underlying land use decisions causing this mid market boom.  And also state who is on that board which are real estate developers.

Dallas DeBurger
Dallas DeBurger

Will people really want to go there and have to dodge the thugs that hang in that area? I think not.

Chetley
Chetley

@stacheone The Mid-Market CBD doesn't make land use decisions--the San Francisco Planning Commission and the Board of Supervisors do that.  What the CBD does is what the rest of the various other CBD's do scattered throughout the city, which is mainly help fund street cleaning, beautifications projections, and other general neighborhood upkeep and improvements.

 
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